Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2007 - The Tops In HD-DVD

After somewhat ungraciously allowing consumers to purchase HD-DVD hardware and software over this past holiday season, Warner Brothers – formally the chief supporter of HD-DVD – officially announced on January 4th that it would support Blu-ray only beginning in May. Warner’s departure (taking New Line with it) may not officially end the high-def format war, but it certainly sets off the warning bell on the top of HD-DVD’s coffin, leaving only Universal and Paramount to man the lighthouse for a coastline increasingly devoid of ships.

For nearly two years, the existence of two competing HD disc formats have meant that early adopters (read: idiots like yours truly who pay for the privilege of beta testing new electronic gadgetry) have either had to choose sides, missing out on favorite movies released on the format you don’t have, or buy-in to both with the knowledge that at least one will soon be obsolete. Smart folks have ducked the fray entirely, content with the still viable DVD format, but for those who typically reside in the narrow slice of the consumer electronic pie graph, it’s been a wild year for HD discs.

The following are all HD-DVD exclusives – a status that is very susceptible to change

Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1
Though Paramount definitely earns a finger wag for its policy of hysterically overpricing Star Trek on DVD, the premier season has certainly been well taken care of throughout its various home video incarnations. When preparing the most recent HD masters, Paramount took the opportunity to digitally update nearly all of the special effects and matte work – a decision that would have been far more controversial had it not been done so well, and with such a high regard for the initial aesthetics and intent of the show. The colors are far richer then the previous DVD edition – but more importantly, the new effects have been extraordinarily well integrated (Galileo Seven’s space exteriors make a good selling point to picky purists) Another pointless “combo” disc (double-sided discs featuring the HD version on one side and standard def on the other) that could have been made invaluable by the inclusion of the original, non-tinkered versions on the standard-def side, but instead offer the identical remastered versions on both. However, it’s the image quality that counts, and this set offers transfers that border on luminous. It’s nice to see a studio take such good care of a venerable franchise – even if the costs are passed on to us.

Battlestar Galactica – Season 1
Those of us who rode the rough pre-teen waves during the late 70s and early 80s have a fondness for the original Battlestar Galactica, though one forged out of nostalgia rather than quality. The basic story line was brilliant: a futuristic civilization, referred to as “The 12 Colonies”, is almost entirely wiped out by a race of sentient robot-creatures called Cylons, and the last survivors must form a futuristic wagon train around the only surviving Battlestar in a search for a possibly-mythical 13th Colony – Earth. The initial series had been plagued by effects that were both cheap and endlessly reused, and suffered a borderline childish execution, with cardboard characters and insultingly derivative storylines and lived on only through the haze of childhood innocence. Genre vet Ronald D. Moore took advantage of the unusual apathy that greeted the announcement of the revamped series to really run with the concept; keeping the central characters, but dramatically altering their relationships and backstories (the notion of the Cylons as a rebellious creation of mankind is a masterstroke). It’s rare for a Sci-Fi series to both emphasize character and showcase stunning special effects (BG’s CGI space combat scenes are revelatory) and even rarer still for the Sci-Fi Channel to be associated with any measure of quality programming. Battlestar Galactica may just be television’s greatest addition to the genre. Like the Star Trek HD-DVD set, this was another case of packaging that was too clever for its own good, arriving in a flimsy cardboard fold-out case, emulating the ‘no corners’ motif employed on the show, with each disc secured within an inch of its life on hard rubber nubs. We had all but destroyed disc 1 before figuring out that a clockwise turn with an upward motion is the only way to free them. There has also been a bit of a hullabaloo regarding the transfers, with many prominent review sites declaring that the pricey HD discs were little better than their standard def counterparts. We heartily disagree; both the miniseries (shot on film) and the remainder of the 1st season (shot on HD video) have been given transfers that are perfectly In keeping with the dark, grainy look of the show. Fans should be grateful that Universal hasn’t artificially boosted the brightness or smoothed out the grain; it’s a rough looking show, kids, and the first responsibility of a HD format is to reproduce the photographic intent of the filmmakers as closely as possible.

Hot Fuzz & Shaun of the Dead
2007 and 2004’s funniest films were given sterling HD releases by Universal, giving us not just some of the best HD transfers around, but working closely with the filmmakers they’ve also stuffed both with a selection of extras that you’ll actually watch (though none are in HD, as they were ported from the DVD editions). Shaun of the Dead really came out of nowhere in 2004; Brits were better prepared having seen director/co-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost previously in the BBC series Spaced, but being a new commodity in the States, Universal didn’t quite know what do to with a film that actually took horror and humor seriously. Obviously a labor of love, it soon picked up legions of fans on home video who shared the filmmakers sensibilities (if the first bit of music gets a smile out of you, you’re in the right place). As good as Shaun was, however, Hot Fuzz, was even better Almost impossible to categorize – calling it a simple action movie spoof unfairly ghettoizes it – Hot Fuzz reunites the artistic team for another genre mash note that loves its subject way too much to ever lapse into parody. Both discs are stuffed beyond reason with deleted scenes/outtakes, weblogs, commentaries, and the like, but Hot Fuzz definitely has the edge on extras. In addition to the four commentary tracks (one featuring real members of Sanford Police Dept) there is a short film made by a teenage Wright while growing up in the real Sanford called Dead Right – which itself features two commentary tracks. This shit just got real.

The Frighteners
In what will probably come to be seen as merely a special effects warm-up effort for Peter Jackson before tackling Lord of the Rings, The Frighteners is actually a razor sharp bridge between the smaller scale gross-outs he built his early reputation on (Dead Alive) and the large-scale Hollywood production pool he is currently swimming in (Lord of the Rings, King Kong). Intended by Universal and producer Robert Zemeckis to be a holiday blockbuster on the order of Ghostbusters (Michael J Fox, whose character can actually communicate with spirits, has them working for him to “haunt” a house and then leave his business card behind) Jackson steered the project into darker waters, losing younger audiences and millions of their parent’s dollars. We think this deserves a place right alongside An American Werewolf in London among the best modern examples of the horror-comedy. Once only available on a pricey Laserdisc box set, his director’s cut is just over 10min longer than the theatrical, allowing the material to breathe without sacrificing the breakneck pacing. Equally important to fans is the inclusion of the nearly 4 1/2hr production documentary, made by Jackson when his first go at King Kong was cancelled by Universal just prior to production, leaving the director with lots of free time. Even full time geekers may find the exhaustive document a bit too much, but that’s a problem that we’re not faced with nearly often enough.

Check back tomorrow for the best of Blu!